Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Despite not being terribly keen on Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite books. It was first published in 1813, following Sense and Sensibility (1811), and is one of the most popular novels in the English language. Most people can quote that opening sentence, and it seems almost everyone has affection for it, and I certainly do - it was one of the only pleasant things during February. It even made me laugh, which was no mean feat. 

Virginia Woolf wrote of Jane Austen, "she never trespassed beyond her boundaries", and yet, "Whatever she writes is finished and turned and set in its relation, not to the parsonage, but to the universe" (The Common Reader First Series). There are indeed elements of realism in her works, perhaps owing to the fact that she did not "trespass beyond her boundaries": for example in the introduction to my Wordsworth edition, it is said that "she never reports a conversation between men when there is no women present" (Virginia Woolf concluded her essay on Jane Austen arguing that, had she have written another six novels, "She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust" - perhaps she already was). Austen wrote parodies, comedies (some place her in the category of "comedy of manners), and romances, but there's certainly more to them, I don't think any of her novels fit neatly into one niche. Pride and Prejudice has all of these elements: the realism, the satire, the attention to manners, etiquette, and society, all within a fairy tale romance. Lizzie Bennet is one of my favourite characters; the second of the Bennet sisters, intelligent, sociable, and lively, she can see through social class and is aware of the hypocrisies within it. She, and too Mr. Darcy (I feel that Pride and Prejudice is so well known and loved I needn't even give a plot and character overview) overcome their personal flaws or failings, and through Lizzie's gradual understanding of herself (or her "self", I should write) she finds happiness. Pride and Prejudice is about this search, and overcoming her prejudice (and pride, I dare say, though that is the realm of Mr. Darcy).

In Jane Austen's own words, Pride and Prejudice is "light, and bright, and sparkling", though she did not intend on complimenting herself. It isn't as fluffy as she believed it was, though. She wrote, as Woolf suggests, on universal themes, love and marriage of course, family conflicts, society, and the self amongst all of that. But, as I say, I think everyone knows this even if they haven't read the book. Perhaps that is why I love it so much - it's as familiar and warm as a Sunday evening, though I think time has made it more gentle than it was originally intended to be. Wrongly, I think, it is a kind of escapism, there is beauty and light in it, and as I say comedy, the end is predictable though the journey to it may not be. But, ending aside, that was not a gentle journey by any stretch of the imagination. For some characters it was a harsh one (though they may not have had the intelligence to realise it, their family members certainly did), and prejudice, not necessarily Lizzie's own, but that which she and her sister suffered, is never a beautiful thing. There's ugliness in Pride and Prejudice, and had I read it with more of a critical mind instead of using it to relax I would have looked deeper. An unsuitable marriage, for example - Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are entirely wrong for each other and another writer would have portrayed this as a tragedy. But this is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, not, say, William Shakespeare's or Anne Brontë's (I'm thinking of Helen Graham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). The fate of Lizzie and her sister Jane could have easily been dull and dark.

Thus, I can't help but feel there's a slight myth surrounding it: it is not so airy, and the reality is I would have died to escape the stuffy society the sisters were often surrounded with; the florals, the soft lace, and the pastels were often merely for show. This doesn't make it a lesser work, far from it; the opposite in fact. Pride and Prejudice is a great book, but I believe it is even greater than commonly portrayed in film, the media, and those genteel front covers. Pride and Prejudice has a sharp edge.




*****
Further reading:
'Jane Austen', by Virginia Woolf (from The Common Reader First Series, 1924)

Jane Austen's Major Works
 Sense and Sensibility (1811) | Pride and Prejudice (1813) | Mansfield Park (1814)
Emma (1815) | Northanger Abbey (1817) | Persuasion (1817)

Comments

  1. Great post! I think you capture one of the best reasons for reading P&P and that's the endless number of levels on which it can be read, for enjoyment, critique or both, and then the nuances that fall into those categories.

    Ah I agree, Austen doesn't do tragedy like Shakespeare - her tragedy is shaded over with comedy and irony. I find that the Bennets' marriage can be tragically depressing if you dwell for too long on it. Same with poor Charlotte Lucas's situation. But Austen being the genius that she is filters these tragedies through comedy and just every day banality, which makes it all the more real for me, because it seems a lot of the time we're too caught up with trivialities to recognise the possible tragedy in our lives. (I might be rambling, but hopefully I got my point across.)

    But yeah, we can choose to ignore the depths for a lighter reading, and at other times get bogged down in the nuances if we want. That's the best kind of reading, isn't it? When it changes with every sitting.

    Also I'm so sorry to hear about Emily D: She looks adorable and happy in those pictures.

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    1. It is definitely the best kind of reading - sometimes one's thrust into darkness, but as you say that's not always entirely real. The comedy adds to the realism in a way :)

      And thanks - Em was a beaut. I miss her a lot. Still getting tears in my eyes thinking about her.

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  2. I so agree with you. Because of the lightness and the humorous aspects of the book, the dark side can definitely be overlooked. Lady Disdain mentioned two unhappy marriages, and Lydia's situation is quite tragic as well, although Austen made her dim enough that she never completely realizes the deplorable circumstances she is in. I definitely felt I was being gently instructed on the importance of choosing a mate based on character and common interests, instead of based on monetary gain and social standing. I just finished Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and this advice would have certainly done Gwendolyn Harleth some good.

    Another wonderful review! :-)

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    1. Thank you :) I saw you'd reviewed Daniel Deronda - that's another one of your posts I have saved!

      I think Lydia could have easily been a Clarissa - I wonder if that was partly inspired by Richardson. You're right - it could have been so much worse.

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  3. Thank you for this post. I'm always glad to hear people defending Austen against the accusation that she wrote 'light' and 'fluffy' literature. I definitely agree with the dark streak that's underneath the surface of the text. When I begin to look at some of the unequal relationships in the novel, they make me feel quite uneasy; the way Mr Bennet treats his wife, Lydia's chances of future happiness... you can't help but wonder. And you're right that the film versions can't do the book justice. There's no way to translate Austen's subtle wit and irony onto the screen; it really has to be read to be appreciated.

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    1. I think perhaps Pride and Prejudice has given me a new perspective on Jane Austen - I've read all the novels and didn't like most of them, but I think I was allowing myself to buy into the "fluff" stereotype. I'm going to give Sense and Sensibility another go at some point and test this new approach! :)

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  4. Such a wonderful and informative post. I don't hear too many people talk about the darker side of this book; it isn't the first thing one notices. I've always thought the Lydia storyline was a bit like Thomas Hardy, or had the potential to be.

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    1. Yes, most definitely, or as I said to Cleo above, perhaps a little like Clarissa?

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  5. Oh I agree that there is a dark side to P&P. Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth's best friend, settling for marriage with the absurd Mr Collins because it is the only option she has springs to mind. I love Sense and Sensiblity, I hope you review it if you do read it.

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    1. Yes, I did feel sorry for Charlotte Lucas. That was a bit grim.

      I loved Sense and Sensibility - my review is here.

      Going to read Emma next - very soon :)

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